Norma J. Nowak is a powerhouse.
And not just in the lab, where she drills deep into human genomics research and helps oversee a company she helped launch.
Her research stretches back to the mid-'80s and much of the 1990s, when she worked intensely in Roswell Park Cancer Institute's labs and on the Human Genome Project that stretched over 15 years.
Passionate, full of life and driven, Nowak wears multiple hats – chief among them as executive director of the University at Buffalo's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
She juggles her role as chief scientific officer of her growing company, Empire Genomics, and is a professor in the university's medical school. The Buffalo Niagara Partnership this spring recognized her with the 2017 Athena Award for her acclaimed research and as a leader in the human genomics field.
She has also pushed forward in the face of personal tragedy. Hodgkin lymphoma claimed the "love of her life," husband Thomas Freeburg, at 38 – leaving her steeped in grief with two young boys to raise. Twenty-two years have passed, and the pain of her husband's loss still brings tears to her eyes and a distinct tremble in her voice.
As a genomics researcher, she has tried to make a difference so other families do not have to go through what her family did.
"This is a disease that will touch all of our lives," Nowak said. "I think about Joe Biden and his son, and the pain that he must be feeling. That pain really doesn't go away. But you have to take that, and say to yourself, 'How do I turn it into something good and make something positive?' It's the only way I can live with it."
Nowak, 59, is homegrown, still in love with Buffalo and credits the region for being a community "rich with wonderful people" who have mentored her throughout her career.
Mentoring, a strong work ethic and passion to never give up are just a few of her secrets in a fast-paced, demanding career that came together in an "ad hoc" sort of manner as she found her path.
Q: How have you accomplished what you have? It had to be very hard after the unexpected death of your husband.
A: My two boys were 5 and 6 years old when my husband passed away. He died from a form of cancer that often doctors will say to you – 'is one we have a great success rate with.' He died of Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was very early-stage disease. We always had the great thoughts that we would have years together and that we would watch our boys grow up, and that we would grow old together and it just didn't go that way.
What has always been enduring for me is when you lose someone, people say time heals all wounds. No it doesn't, really. You carry that with you. But I look at them and think how proud their dad would be of both those two boys. People will say to me, 'How did you ever raise two little boys and get them through all of that, and still do all of this?' I don't actually know how I did it. You learn when to ask for help. And you prioritize things. Figure out what's really important and let the rest of it kind of fall off.
Q: How have mentors defined your career path?
A: From the time I was very, very little, my grandmother used to take me to the library. She used to read these books to me, which literally were all about human biology and disease ... She never really had a chance to go to college, but taught herself many things. The one thing she always said to me was how important it was to have an education. She had an incredible work ethic, but she died when I was probably around 6 years old. She lit that spark, and the spark has continued to grow and grow. And I carried that with me all through my years in Buffalo public schools and through college.
Q: What's going on at your company, Empire Genomics, these days?
A: The main focus at Empire is oncology. I started the company in having this passion for really understanding. My husband was told he would have a 90 percent chance of beating this disease. So what was different about him? He was diagnosed just before he turned 36 and he passed away two years later. It was a tough two years. My grandmother died of cancer. That was also another motivator. These are always things that you carry with you through your life and I think steers you in certain directions. Tom's death – I can remember him saying, 'How can this happen?' I was always very encouraging and hopeful because that's one thing you can never take away from a patient. You always have to give a patient hope. You have to always keep hope alive.
Empire Genomics has grown over the years and now has about 22 employees. We develop genetic tests that help better categorize a patient's cancer and how can we better figure out where a person fits in the scheme of cancer. We work to more precisely identify what the errors are, the mutations are in a patient's cancer. And today, you really have to understand that in the context of their genome. Certain individuals have certain risk factors and those are all the things that we're now trying to understand and what is the context of how your tumors develop.
I think about Tom because he literally had never gotten sick and was amazingly healthy, and out of the blue, this happens. A therapist said to me after he passed away: You have to stop frustrating yourself. You may never have the answers.' And I said, "Well, I'm never going to stop trying.'
Q: What insights would you share with young women coming out of undergraduate education as they look toward a career in science?
A: I think one of the most important things for any young woman coming up is to never doubt yourself. Always believe that you can do whatever you set your sights on … Part of that may be finding the person who is going to help you get to the next place, who is going to believe in you and say, 'This person has a great idea, and I'm going to help.' I had quite a few of those.
Q: What are your greatest accomplishments?
A: My two greatest experiments are my two boys. If I would have screwed that up, you can't fix that. I live in a community that really supported me, even though I lost the love of my life. I raised my two boys, watched them go to school, get jobs and take their next step in life. It's a wonderful story. Could I have gone elsewhere? Sure, but I was able to do it all here. Some of my best experiments were the ones that failed, because I learned the most from them.
Q: Any parting wisdom?
A: Life is so unpredictable. You have to have strength in character and resilience. Do not let anything get you down. I don't accept defeat well.
Interview has been edited for length.